Sixty-seven thousand Atlanta United fans entered Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Saturday afternoon expecting three points, or at least a goal from their star striker, Josef Martínez.
The stage was set. Back in the fold, Martínez was making his first start in months, ready to unnerve the reigning MLS Cup champions.
And yet, that’s not at all what happened.
Instead, when the full-time whistle sounded, Martínez was bent over with his hands on his knees, looking at the turf. On the other side of the field, Jonathan Mensah, who was defending the striker, looked up at the heavens with his index fingers pointed upward.
Martínez never produced a shot on target, the Columbus Crew kept Atlanta scoreless, and the Black & Gold left MLS’ largest stadium with three points and their second road win in league play.
“(An) unbelievable road win,” head coach Caleb Porter said after the match. “I told the guys before the game that I felt like this was going to be our second win on the road. The main reason why was our confidence. We’re a team that’s finding ways to win, get points and get results.”
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Both sides generated attacking chances in the opening half, including numerous chances from the visitors, but were kept scoreless at halftime. Twenty minutes into the second half, that changed when Mensah nodded Columbus into the lead from a corner kick.
A near-post corner from Lucas Zelarayan went to Marlon Hairston, who flicked the ball to the back post, where the Crew captain waited for the game-winner. The goal was Mensah’s first from league play this season.
“We needed to do better on set pieces,” Porter said. “(Assistant coach) Pablo Moreira is the guy that really does so much behind the scenes. Ben Cross, Ezra Hendrickson, Tim Hanley, these guys deserve a lot of the credit behind the scenes for everything that we do. But Pablo Moreira draws up the set-piece attacking plays, he looks at the opponent and I thought he drew up a very good play where we served in to Marley to flick on to Jonah and it was great for him to get that goal."
With the win, the Crew have now won five consecutive games against the Five Stripes and have taken seven of a possible nine points in their last three matches.
For a team that had eight players unavailable on Saturday afternoon, that’s an impressive feat that extends the Black & Gold’s unbeaten streak to six games.
“I think this team is becoming flexible and finding ways to win games, it’s that simple,” the head coach said. “(We’re) doing different things to win games and not be as predictable.”
Pleased with the result, Porter said he hopes Columbus can build off the road win entering next Friday’s match at Yankee Stadium against New York City FC. The Crew has beaten NYCFC twice already in 2021, including the Club’s other road win on May 22. Then, Zelarayán scored two late free-kick goals to win, 2-1, inside Red Bull Arena.